The Bluest Eye: Essay Q&A
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1. What kind of relationship do Claudia and Frieda have with their mother, Mrs. MacTeer ?
Claudia and Frieda are cared for and protected by their mother, as is shown in the section "Autumn," in which the reader learns about the MacTeer family and Claudia's and Frieda's home life and friendship with Pecola. Mrs. MacTeer tells the children about Pecola before she comes to live with them, preparing them for a change in their living situation. The children learn that Pecola was put outdoors, with nowhere to go. Mrs. MacTeer encourages her children to feel love and nurturing toward Pecola and other people. The girls want to help Pecola too, because their mother is helping her. In this way, the MacTeer girls learn generosity and empathy from their mother. When Pecola was playing with the MacTeer girls, she started menstruating, and the girls tried to help her. When Mrs. MacTeer discovered the situation, she also helped the girl and assured her that she was all right and that menstruating was normal. From watching their mother, the MacTeer girls learn how to treat other people with respect.
Claudia and Frieda also learn from their mother how to value themselves and to stick up for themselves. When Mrs. MacTeer realizes that Pecola is drinking too much milk, she tells her so. She is showing the children that she will not allow a guest to come into their house and drink all of their milk. She does not allow other people to take advantage of her.
Mrs. MacTeer is not always appreciated by her children. Claudia says that the adults in the home do not talk to them, instead, they give orders. When the children become sick they realize that they are an extra burden to the adults, and the adults make no attempt to disguise this. In Mrs. MacTeer's extreme tiredness, she blames Claudia for getting sick, although this does not stop her from nursing Claudia until she is well. Claudia remembers her mother coming into her bedroom at night to check on her and apply the medicine.
In spite of Mrs. MacTeer's faults, then, Claudia and Frieda are taken care of and protected by their mother. She loves them and they know it. Although they are poor, they love each other and can feel safe in their own home.
2. What is the significance of "seeds" in the novel?
In the novel, seeds refer to both plant seeds in nature and human semen in the womb of a woman. Seeds are the way that the present is transferred to the future. For seeds in nature to grow, the soil and the weather have to be nurturing. It is not just about planting the seeds. Therefore, in the novel there is an emphasis on marigolds and how they did not bloom that year. This fact bothers the girls and somehow they feel responsible that the seeds did not produce flowers.
The seed in Pecola's womb did not produce a baby either. Claudia and Frieda felt bad about that and tried to ensure that her baby would live by planting marigold seeds around. However, the flowers did not bloom and the baby was not allowed to live. The meaning of this death is similar to the meaning in nature; the environmental conditions were not nurturing for life. A girl should not be impregnated by her own father. The seed she received was from her own father, which is highly unnatural and morally wrong. Genetically, it is also unproductive in propagating the species. When humans inbreed, it causes genetic defects in the progeny. Therefore, it does not promote the human species. In that sense, it was better that the baby did not live.
Seeds are intimately connected to the future and the past. When seeds in nature are planted, that is the way a species of plant continues into the future. When a man's seed is planted in a woman's womb, that is how a family continues into the future. Through seeds, the future is generated and the past is permitted to continue. However, if a natural law is broken, such as what occurs during inbreeding or incest, the progeny cannot live. Since Pecola's baby was conceived by an act of incest, her baby was not permitted by nature to live. It means that good fruit or a normal baby cannot come from a bad seed. Cholly's act of incest was highly immoral or bad. Therefore, it was easy for the folks from Lorain, Ohio, to assume that the baby should not have lived.
3. How are the middle-class blacks portrayed in the novel?
The middle-class blacks in the novel are portrayed as filled with self-loathing and unable to love or value themselves or their own children. It is as if they have committed the worst sin by adopting the value system of white Anglos and then turned it against themselves and each other. They are people who emulate the whites, absorb their values and hate and turn against their own heritage. It is as if Morrison is saying that if blacks themselves cannot be counted on to value and continue their own racial heritage then there is no one who will do it. She wrote this novel to show these blacks how they failed.
The middle-class blacks in the novel are the characters that the reader is likely to feel the least empathy for because they betray the high expectations others have of them. When a member of a race of people obtains power, the others watch and wait. It is as if they are wanting to be led in the right way. This is when a person is more than she is, when she can be a model for others. It is their responsibility to be a role model for their race, so the world can see the true variety in the black race and let go of their prejudices.
In many instances in the novel, the middle-class blacks are harshly portrayed as unfeeling and self-loathing. For example, when Geraldine is described as not allowing her baby to cry, the reader feels no empathy or compassion for her. We are told that Geraldine took care of her son's physical needs but did not express affection toward him; but she did express affection for her blue-eyed cat. What kind of woman would love her cat but not her own child? This is the question the reader is left to ask. Of course, the answer is, not a kind or loving woman.
Geraldine is the epitome of racial hatred. When she arrives home after Junior killed the cat, and sees Pecola, the only images that run through her mind are of poverty. She throws the girl out of the house immediately. It is not only because she believes Junior's version of the incident; his story simply confirms her own beliefs about poor black people. She does not even require an explanation of the incident from Pecola because just seeing her explains everything in Geraldine's eyes. That tells the reader that Geraldine is making decisions based primarily on racial discrimination, not facts. Geraldine cannot see the little girl, Pecola, for who she is. She doesn't want to see Pecola. She only wants to continue to believe what she already believes, rather than try to get at the truth of the situation. Therefore, as a character, Geraldine is impossible to like or identify with. The reader expects a black person, at least, to see another black person as a human being of the same race. But Geraldine seems barely to acknowledge that Pecola is a human being.
4. How does the knowledge of Pauline's past and Cholly's past change the reader's impression of them ?
At the beginning of the novel, the reader learns about Pecola's home life and pregnancy with her father's baby before we know anything about Pecola's mother or father. It is the harsh, unloving perspective of gossip that informs the reader of Pauline and Cholly at the beginning. However, after we learn about Pauline and Cholly, we view them in a more understanding way.
After the reader learns about Pauline's upbringing, she can, in part, be understood. The same goes with Cholly. After learning about his childhood and young adulthood, we can see how he was hurt. Seeing the pain of these two characters helps us to understand their behavior. However, we cannot forgive them. We cannot like them because we expect a mother and father to take care of their children.
Cholly's rape of his own daughter is so disgusting that, even though we are told he was drunk and he had an abusive past, we still cannot forgive him. However, reading about his past and upbringing soften our feelings toward him and place some of the blame on society. It was the twisted, black-hating culture that made Cholly who he is, the confused, angry, self-hating rapist. It was also, in part, the black-hating culture that produced Pauline. Pauline lavished affection on her employer's white daughter but not her own, Pecola, who desperately needed her. It is unforgivable but it is understandable because we are given the background of both of these characters.
At the beginning of the novel, the reader is told by the narrator that the novel will not answer "why" the incest happened to Pecola; however, we are promised we will learn "how" it happened. Indeed, we do learn "how," but the "why" stays with us much longer, when at the end of the novel Claudia summarizes why she believes that Pecola's life turned out the way it did.
5. Is The Bluest Eye an indictment of blacks?
The answer to this question must be no. Although Pauline and Cholly are hardly admirable characters, they are largely shaped by their environment. The middle-class blacks are presented in a poor light, but rather than being bad in themselves, they have simply been unable to resist the force of the culturally propagated idea of white as superior. They are helpless in the face of cultural conditioning. The novel is less an indictment of blacks than an investigation of how it could happen that a black girl could come to define beauty in terms of blue eyes, something alien to her true beauty and impossible for her to possess. In her afterword to the novel, written in 1993, Toni Morrison explains the origin of the book. She reports that when she was in elementary school, she heard one of the black girls there say she wanted blue eyes. Morrison at the time was "violently repelled" (p. 209) by her idea of what this would make the girl look like. The novel grew out of the need to investigate how a black girl would be unable to recognize herself as beautiful. "Who had looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale? The novel pecks away at the gaze that condemned her" (p. 210). The Bluest Eye, then, traces the cultural origins of the girl's self-loathing rather than pinning the blame for her plight, as well as that of other blacks, on individual blacks themselves.
Resisting the stereotypes prevalent in a society is no easy matter. In his recent book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Little, Brown and Company, 2005), Malcolm Gladwell shows how easy it is for people to internalize negative qualities about themselves. In what is called a "priming experiment," a number of black college students were assigned twenty questions from the Graduate Record Examination. When the students were asked to identify their race on a pretest questionnaire, the number of questions they answered correctly dropped by half. Gladwell explains that the simple act of identifying their race "was sufficient to prime them with all the negative stereotypes associated with African Americans and academic achievement" (p. 56). The students themselves were of course completely unconscious of these mental processes that caused them, like the characters in The Bluest Eye, to devalue themselves. They were simply victims of cultural conditioning.